Belt Line Railroad - Table of Contents
The Belt Line Railroad:
Its Influence on the Development of Buffalo's Neighborhoods
Buffalo, New York
By Daniel Zornick
|Illustrations added to Zornick's history
The Belt Line Railroad and trolley service intersect at the Terrace, Buffalo, 1895.
Amherst (Bennett) Station, Amherst at Starin
The Ford Motor Company opened a factory at 2495 Main Street by the Belt Line Railroad crossing
Ford Motor Company and Belt Line Railroad
Pierce Arrow Co. administration building on Elmwood at Great Arrow by the Belt Line Railroad crossing
Before the present day automobile age, there was an age in America where the general population of cities relied on public transportation as a means for commuting to work or visiting friends on the other part of town. In order to function in society, one relied on transportation that was shared by all those living in the city, from the affluent to the working class.
In 1883, when the City of Buffalo was affluent yet still relatively small in size, a new railroad was installed by New York Central Railroad. It was needed in order to transport goods produced by the booming industry of Buffalo to the many consumers that relied on the wide variety of manufactured goods and raw materials. At its height, the railroad encircled the City of Buffalo and connected to the railway system as a whole in America.
This railroad was called the Belt Line railroad because it formed a belt around Buffalo. In its approximate thirty-year existence, the Belt Line Railroad had a tremendous impact on the development of industry and the development of Buffalo's neighborhoods that can still be seen to this day. The Belt Line railroad gradually faded out of existence after World War I as a result of a loss of business due to competition from trolley lines and automobiles.
At its inception the Belt Line railroad had nineteen stops spaced approximately one mile apart along its circular route in Buffalo. The center of activity was the main station at Exchange Street. At the Exchange Street station, trains from all over America arrived and departed with valuable materials that fueled Buffalo's Industrial economy. On average there were eighty-four arrivals and eighty-six departures totaling one hundred-seventy weekday train movements. Eighty-two of the total one hundred-seventy train movements took place at the New York Central stop at Exchange Street. Along with the immense freight service, the Belt Line provided access from any area in the city to any other part of the city for a nickel fare. With its stations conveniently located in every part of Buffalo; the East Side, West Side, North Buffalo, South Buffalo, Riverside/Black Rock, and Downtown, access to any point in the city was within walking distance if you had a nickel.
Prior to the construction of the Belt Line, canals and Great Lakes shipping were the most efficient way of transporting freight to other parts of the country. As a result most of the industry in Buffalo was located near the waterfront or along the canals. With the advent of railways, and with cheap hydroelectric power from Niagara Falls, industry no longer had to be located on water in order to transport freight. Factories began to spring up along the tracks of the Belt Line. In Black Rock an industrial strip developed along the tracks that used the Tonawanda-Amherst Street station to transport their goods. "Riding the Belt Line from the East Side of the city to the new urban-industrial frontier in Black Rock, hundreds of Poles began to settle on the east side of the tracks along Amherst Street."
Other notable edifices include the Pierce Arrow Factory on Elmwood near Hertel and the Pierce Arrow showroom on Main Street. A separate showroom and factory were made possible by a connection between the two by rail.
Along with factories along Belt Line tracks there came small working class neighborhoods such as those in Black Rock and along Broadway in Buffalo's East Side. Often those living in these neighborhoods were employed by factories that transported their goods along the Belt Line.
Many of the homes built at that time were of a type known as the working man's cottage, a simple two-story arrangement with three bedrooms and one bath. A style of home very prevalent in Buffalo, the two family flat became popular at this time. This style of home made it possible for a working class family to afford home ownership by renting out the other flat to another family. "The houses may not be great architecture, but the residential charm of these well maintained little streets is undeniable" The appearance and atmosphere of a neighborhood is dependent on the needs and the means of the inhabitants.
As Buffalonians became wealthy through the bustling economy, many chose to live in a more suburban setting. Almost exactly within the operating time of the Belt Line Railroad, the Parkside neighborhood developed. The large Victorian houses were spaced farther apart to create a relaxed suburban atmosphere for its upper middle class inhabitants. The development of the Parkside neighborhood can greatly be attributed to its proximity to the Belt Line station at Starin and Amherst. Those living in Parkside could enjoy an isolated setting while still being connected to the rest of the city. [Another Parkside station was located on Main.near Greenfield streets, presently the site of dry cleaners.]
The development of the Kensington-Grider area can also be attributed to the Belt Line Railroad. Following the success of the Parkside neighborhood, real estate agents began to sell plots of land on the outskirts of Buffalo. These plots of land were sold based on their proximity to Belt Line stations. There was a station at Kensington and Wyoming, and one on Delavan between Norfolk and a street that was called Herber. As this land began to develop, the neighborhoods also became suburban in nature, but as opposed to Parkside, these neighborhoods took on a suburban yet working-class look.
Although the Belt Line railroad pre-dates many of Buffalo's neighborhoods, its effect on their development was immeasurable. Real estate was divided into plots around the Belt Line, most notably in North Buffalo. After the Pan-American Exposition, empty fairgrounds in close proximity to the numerous stations in North Buffalo were divided up and sold to developers. The Belt Line built a station specifically for the visitors to the Exhibition. It was located near Delaware and Linden, at the left rear of what is presently (2002) an empty Tops Market. It had its own siding, and was a major mode of transport both for Buffalonians eager to enjoy the Exposition, and for tourists from beyond Buffalo, via the Exchange Street station. "The New York Central billed itself as THE line to the Exposition" After the Exposition, hungry developers quickly parceled off the former fairgrounds, and more neighborhoods and commercial districts were the result.
Not only did the Belt Line hasten development of neighborhoods, it also created a certain landscape in Buffalo. In practically every area of Buffalo there are railway crossings, usually in the form of bridges. "By 1906, neighborhoods along the NYC's Belt Line had grown to such an extent that a supplementary plan was adopted which called for abolition of fifty-two more grade crossings." The roads were lowered to below grade, and bridges laid above for the trains. This can be seen at Colvin near Crescent, at Parkside near Linden, and at Amherst at Austin, among many other places.
"Locally, Belt Line passenger service, which at its peak years had consisted of twenty-six small trains a day, was abandoned after the First World War, a victim of a one-two punch delivered by street and motor cars."
The use of the Belt Line for freight continues to this day. The Belt Line Railroad had an immense effect on Buffalo, economic, social, and physical, that can still be seen today. On a quiet night in Buffalo one can often hear the whistle of trains that even today use the track laid down for the Belt Line.
[In 1882, the NYC Beltline Railroad was completed, circling the City of Buffalo in a 15-mile loop and transporting people from Niagara Falls, Olcott Beach, and the outskirts of Buffalo to downtown for a 5-cents fare. Two stations were built in the Parkside area: the Highland Station near Jewett Parkway and Main Street and the Bennett station at Starin Avenue and Amherst Street. Industrial development sprung up along the Beltline route. - History of the Parkside Area and Community]
Dunn, Edward T. A History of Railroads in Western New York. Buffalo Heritage Press, 1996
Eberle, Scott and Grande, Joseph A. Second Looks A Pictorial History of Buffalo and Erie County . The Donning Company, 1987
Kowsky, Francis R., Goldman, Mark, Fox, Austin, Randall, John D., Quinan, Jack, Lasher, Teresa. Buffalo Architecture: A Guide . The MIT Press, 1981
Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Leary, Thomas , Sholes, Elizabeth Buffalo's Pan American Exhibition. Arcadia Press, 1998
Matthews Northrup & Company. Homes at Chatsworth, Map 1890
Schlosser, Eric. The Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001
Smith, Perry. History of Buffalo and Erie County. D. Mason Company, 1984
Street Railway Journal. 15 June, 1901, Number 24
Williams, Bob. "For A Pleasant Ride or Getting to Work, You Took the Belt Line for a Nickel". Buffalo Evening News, 22 May 1965: 1B
Text © 2002 Daniel Zornick